Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 14

The jury is still out on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea to turn his country into an “energy superpower” is a viable long-term development strategy. Yet in the short run, Moscow appears likely to continue aggressively using its seemingly boundless mineral resources to re-assert its geopolitical position. Russia’s energy relationship with the European Union is a good example of Moscow’s skillful manipulation of its hydrocarbon riches. Although European customers of Russian gas were painfully, if briefly, hurt in the course of the recent Russia-Ukraine “gas war,” the well-coordinated EU energy policy is unlikely to appear any time soon. As a result, the EU’s new entrants—the Soviet Union’s former East European satellites—will long remain potentially vulnerable to Russia’s economic and political pressure.

Recently, a number of international and local analysts hold that Russia has used “more muscle than brain in its foreign policy,” referring mostly to the New Year’s Moscow-Kyiv standoff over fuel pricing—the incident that appears to have seriously dented Russia’s image as a reliable partner. Needless to say, those in the Kremlin would strongly disagree with such an analysis. Muscle was simply missing from Russia’s policies in the past, they argue, and now that it is making itself felt, the West finds it uncomfortable.

The shift that has happened in the Kremlin’s behavior can be described as a transition from mere reaction to the other international actors’ moves to seizing the strategic initiative, suggests Konstantin Kosachev, a prominent foreign-policy commentator and head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee. In the recent past Russia mainly strove to minimize the negative consequences of NATO and EU enlargement, argues the lawmaker in a policy paper published in the popular daily Trud. Yet in 2005, he says, “we started resolutely and effectively acting in accordance with our national interests.”

It’s noteworthy that energy leverage and, in particular, the Russian-German agreement on building the North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) figure prominently in Kosachev’s analysis of Russia’s international posture. He contends that it is a vitally important project, which has not just commercial but also a huge political significance.

Indeed, a direct Russian-German energy export route will make the East European countries, which are almost totally dependent on Russian gas supplies, dangerously exposed to potential Kremlin pressure, as they will be effectively separated from their partners in “Old Europe.” Moscow then will be in a position to pursue what some experts call a “two-tiered energy policy” toward Europe: acting as a reliable supplier to the rich economies in the Continent’s west while at the same time being able to arbitrarily raise fuel prices or simply cut off gas to its pesky neighbors in Europe’s east—if the Kremlin deems it politically expedient. Besides, with the pipe running under the Baltic Sea and not overland, the Balts and Poles will lose a chance to get a piece of the action. No wonder that Kosachev puts a special emphasis on the fact that NEPG has been supported by EU officials despite the “fierce resistance” of the Baltic states and Poland.

It would appear that the NEGP received new life following the January 16 talks between the new German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Putin. “The Baltic Sea gas pipeline is indeed an investment in Europe’s energy security,” Merkel argued at the news conference in Moscow. “I have already said that it should be made clear to the Baltic countries and Poland that this project is not aimed against anyone.”

If the Chancellor tried to allay fears regarding her country’s energy partnership with Russia, she definitely failed. A group of prominent East European politicians, including the ex-prime ministers of Poland, Latvia and Estonia, attacked the Russian-German pipeline deal and called for the urgent elaboration of the EU’s joint energy policy. Far from solving the existing problems, the proposed Baltic pipeline could create new ones, the East European policymakers argued in the letter published in the January 17 issue of the Financial Times, adding that the realization of the project will likely lead to the weakening of energy safety of some EU member states as well as to ecological disaster in the Baltic Sea.

Clearly, the East Europeans’ appeal was timed to impact the January 17 debate in the European Parliament on how best to safeguard Europe’s energy supplies. Remarkably, the heated discussion revealed the existence of two conflicting approaches. Most legislators from the new member states advocated the need to take a tough stance toward Russia. Other deputies, mainly from the bloc’s core-countries, urged their colleagues to be more pragmatic, noting that the EU’s dependence on Russian energy is too significant to be ignored. It is this second approach that appears to enjoy support of the EU’s decision-makers.

For its part, the Kremlin is eager to demonstrate that it is fully aware of its strong position. “There are no real alternative, accessible reserves to Russia at the moment,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov confidently stated in a recent interview with the Moscow Times.

(Trud, Kommersant, RFE/RL, Guardian, January 18, Financial Times, January 17, Moscow Times, January 17, 10)